Mouse draws on toon titan

Pact pumps Disney pipeline

In a move as surprising for its scope as for its address, John Williams, producer of DreamWorks’ mega-hit “Shrek,” has partnered with rival Walt Disney Studios in a multi-project animated film output agreement. Williams’ Vanguard Films, which has just produced Jackie Chan actioner “The Tuxedo” for DreamWorks Pictures, will form a strategic partnership to produce a slate of computer-animated feature films budgeted at between $35 million and $40 million.

Deal critically adds a second established turnkey supplier to Disney’s animation pipeline, alongside Pixar, which most recently delivered the box office smash “Monsters, Inc.” under its ongoing pact with the Mouse House.

Disney will handle North American theatrical and DVD and homevideo distribution rights on pics, with more than 50% of the financing to be raised via pre-sales through Ralph Kemp’s London-based foreign sales outfit, Odyssey Entertainment. Mouse House also has worldwide licensing and merchandising rights to pics under the pact.

The first film to go into production will be “Valiant,” a comedy penned by George Webster and George Melrod, followed by an anticipated slate of three more CG-animated films.

While set in WWII, “Valiant” is described by insiders as more “Private Benjamin” than “Private Ryan,” following a lonely and comically misfit pigeon through boot camp at the Royal Pigeon Service. Vastly unqualified for the job, Valiant squeaks his way through RAF training and is abruptly sent on the most important mission of the war, charged with carrying key dispatches from the French Resistance to Allies regarding the D-Day landing in Normandy.

At the Vanguard

Pact for “Valiant” will mark the launch of a new venture, Vanguard Animation, which will expand Vanguard from an independent production company into a fully financed digital animation studio with the capability to internally develop and finance its own projects.

Williams will act as CEO of the new company, while a recent Vanguard addition, Neil Braun, will serve as prexy of Vanguard Animation.

“We are thrilled to join forces with John, Neil and their incredible team of top animators in this extraordinary production partnership,” said Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. ” ‘Valiant’ is a terrific story that will live up to the highest standards of animation, and Vanguard’s exciting development slate promises great entertainment that will certainly appeal to all audiences,” he added.

“We have set up a unique approach to funding and making these movies,” said Williams. “We will make these films for under $40 million each, and they will be delivered within two years of their start date. We will deliver ‘Toy Story’-to-‘Dinosaur’-to-‘Shrek’-level animation. We came to Disney with confirmed financing, completed scripts, completed budgets, multiple CG tests for each film, advanced character designs and production design concepts.”

Feeding a lean Mouse

Disney recently slashed staff and overhead in its animation unit in an attempt to contain costs, spending a relatively lean $85 million on its inhouse-produced “Lilo and Stitch” after watching profitability erode on high-cost pictures such as “Tarzan.” Deal with Vanguard also gives Disney access to additional animation talent it no longer has inhouse.

“Valiant” will start pre-production this month in Los Angeles, then move to Ealing Studios in London for production. Pic will be released in fall 2004. Eric M. Bennett, president of production for Vanguard Animation, will co-produce the film along with Barnaby Thompson, a producer/partner of Fragile Films and Ealing Studios.

“Our objective is to make animated films that are great comedies, great adventures and great entertainment and which are suitable for a broad family audience,” said Williams. “With the success of ‘Ice Age’ and ‘Shrek’ overseas, there was a real appetite in major foreign territories for mainstream CG fare.”

As the newly formed alliances move forward, Williams will continue in his first-look, live-action deal with DreamWorks Pictures, ongoing since 1995.

Aggressive fund-raising

Braun, a former prexy of the NBC television network who recently joined the company, has pursued a very aggressive and successful round of financing for Vanguard Animation as the company looks to scale up operations. Braun, along with Vanguard animation directors Roy Furman and Tom Lewyn, was instrumental in pulling together the new company. He was also previously chairman and CEO of Viacom Entertainment and president of Imagine Entertainment.

Curtis Augspurger and Buckley Collum of Menace FX will oversee the building of Vanguard’s physical animation studio. Menace has joined forces with Vanguard Animation in a joint venture to oversee the establishment of its substantial CG operation.

Augspurger and Collum, who have worked extensively on digital production with companies including Warner Bros., Disney and Electronic Arts, will also co-produce “Valiant.”

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